In recent months I have become increasingly interested in writers who discuss nature and the wilderness in their work. I have been keeping a mental note of several writers to consider, and was trying to decide between J.A. Baker‘s landmark work The Peregrine, Robert MacFarlane‘s The Old Ways, or a selection of John Muir‘s writing about his time in the Sierra Nevada. Then I was reminded of a book that my wife had read the previous year, and decided to read the opening couple of pages to get a sense of the prose. The book was Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir, Wild, and I was hooked.
Wild documents Strayed’s decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail of California and Oregon four years after the death of her mother. Starting in the Mojave Desert, she walks over a thousand miles through American wilderness accompanied by a debilitatingly large backpack nicknamed ‘Monster’. The book is structured as a linear journey with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the narrative is punctuated by a number of poignant flashbacks and meditations. Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Reveries of the Solitary Walker there has been a literary/philosophical tradition that explicitly ties walking to the process of thinking, dreaming, and reflection—and Strayed’s autobiographical work is very much a part of this tradition.
Strayed’s slow, arduous and often joyful journey allows her to reevaluate her position in the world. She writes that
“[f]oot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate struggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and the my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.”
— Cheryl Strayed
Strayed’s account is intimate, funny, and bracing in its honesty, and offers a poignant portrait of a woman trying to work through her grief. In her solitude, Strayed gradually comes to terms with her loss, and gains a fresh perspective on her own life.
Reading Wild, I was fascinated by the severe restrictions that the hikers of the PCT are required to impose on themselves. Walking long distances, each hiker carries their tent, clothing, food and water on their back, and so it becomes essential that one’s load is as light and as practical as possible. This is something that Strayed learns the hard way, weighed down by all manner of tools and supplies that those more experienced on the trail offer to discard. Books are considered luxury items, and Strayed discusses picking up new novels at various points on the trail and burning the pages she has read to preserve a light load. She reads (and burns) books by J.M. Coetzee, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, and a host of others over the course of her summer. But one of the books that she decides to keep and carry the distance is a book that she does not even need, because she remembers every word. It is Adrienne Rich‘s poetry collection, The Dream of a Common Language:
“I’d read The Dream of a Common Language so often that I’d practically memorized it. In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn’t regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion.”
— Cheryl Strayed
Strayed’s edition of Rich’s poetry remains with her and sustains her through the course of her long journey to Oregon, a journey that marks not only Strayed’s negotiation with feelings of loss, trauma, and grief, but which signals a return to her sense of self, a journey from lost to found. In its appreciation of the power of art and literature to restore us to ourselves, and in its own honest and humble prose, Wild is startling, highly affecting, and wonderfully life-affirming.
Wild is available from Penguin Random House.
Find out More
- Read more about Wild on Cheryl Strayed‘s official website
- Sara Wheeler calls Strayed’s memoir ‘a fascinating read’ in The Observer
- Video: The Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association interviews Cheryl Strayed
- Video: Reese Wetherspoon, Cheryl Strayed, and Laura Dern discuss the film adaptation of Wild
- Video: Cheryl Strayed discusses her experiences on the PCT in a talk entitled ‘Radical Sincerity’ for TEDxConcordiaUPortland